More than a Feeling: Rock Stars, Heroines and Transwomen
by Miroslav Imbrišević
If you want to be a rock star, playing Guitar Hero (a video game) with your friends will not do the trick. Although it might sow some seeds. You need to do rock star things: play a real instrument or sing, write good songs, have long hair, do some head banging, smash your guitar on stage, trash hotel rooms and throw wild parties.
If you want to be a hero or heroine, you need to do heroic deeds, like rescuing grannies from burning buildings or holding off a horde of Nazis single-handedly, while you wait for reinforcements to arrive. Re-creating the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar in your bedroom will not count as heroic.
Note that merely ‘feeling like a rock’ star, or ‘feeling like a heroine’ will not make you into a rock star or a heroine either. Though such feelings may (or may not) arise once you are a member of The Pretenders or when you get a medal for bravery.
If you want to be a (trans)woman… let’s see.
There is a war over words being waged within academia, in the political sphere, but also on the internet. The bone of contention is the word ‘woman’, and how a particular interpretation might affect the rights of women and transwomen. Before I proceed I need to state that I write from the perspective of a male philosopher, but with a little help from my female friends.
If you were born with a male body, is there anything you could do (like aspiring rock stars or future heroines) which would make you a woman? The law (Gender Recognition Act 2004) in the UK suggests, yes, there is. One of the requirements for changing your gender is that you prove that you have lived fully in your acquired gender for the last two years (by producing documentary evidence showing change of name and gender, such as a passport, rent book, wages slip or benefits documentation). From this we can deduce that gender presentation and changing your first name to a traditional female name would be some of things the law makers in 2004 expected people to do as part of “living in your acquired gender.” We could go further and say that the lawmakers expected you to not keep presenting as a man. Transwomen were supposed to conform – outwardly – to the gender roles associated with women.
There are other things transwomen do willingly in order to affirm their idea of womanhood and/or to be read as a woman: use make-up, have gender-affirming surgery, wear a wig, have feminizing facial surgery and voice training, use electrolysis, take hormones, etc. In this respect they are doing things traditionally associated with being a woman or things which might have a feminizing effect. By doing these things they are just like rock stars or heroines.
A lot of the things transwomen do may seem gender-stereotypical. Resisting gender-stereotypes would be counterproductive for those transwomen who wish to be read as women, because it would make it less likely that they would pass as women. Doing some of these feminizing things helps in adapting to the gender role associated with women.
Note that the direction of fit, for the three groups I have discussed so far, is always from the individual to the concept (rock star, heroine, woman – understood as the gender role). You make yourself fit the concept by doing certain things; you move from doing to being.
Does this also hold for natal women? Do they need to do something in order to be a woman (understood as ‘adult female human being’)? No. They could resist gender stereotypes from early on (tomboy) and continue to do so – think of gender non-conforming lesbians – and still be classed as women. Similarly, many male rock stars of the 70s and 80s were gender non-conforming by incorporating stereotypical feminine traits into their hyper-masculinity: long hair, poodle perms, strutting, writhing, tight trousers, make-up, high heels, etc. So what is it that makes you a woman – understood as being of the female sex?
Society starts taking its cue from the biological reality of natal women (XX chromosomes, sexual organs, etc.), beginning from birth. And on the way to adulthood a girl will be – to a higher or lesser degree – socialized into the (gender) roles associated with women. Their female sex is a brute fact, no different from the color of your eyes or the shape of your nose.  The brute fact of being born female (or male) precedes or underlies anything you may do to conform to or resist the gender concept ‘woman’ (or ‘man’). There are no brute facts that underlie being a rock star or a heroine – hence the need to do certain things. The midwife doesn’t say: “Look! It’s a rock star.” Instead, she says: “Look! It’s a girl.” 
For transwomen, the brute fact of being born female (a girl) is missing; they are faced with the brute fact of being born male. Thus, all that could qualify them for being a woman — in the traditional, gender-role sense of the word — would be to do those things that outwardly mark you as a woman. But these markers are selections and oftentimes, reflect male fantasies and projections. 
Some trans activists are suggesting that there is something else that could take the place of the missing brute fact of being born female and living in a female body: “feeling” like a woman – an inner sense of self that reveals your gender identity. These trans activists (and their philosophical supporters in feminist theory) claim that there is no need to do or change anything about yourself in order to be (legally) classed as a woman; to fall under the concept ‘woman’. All that is required to make you a woman is to feel like a woman, to self-identify as a woman. And this feeling allegedly comes with its own epistemic warrant. It is claimed to be self-validating (also here), the idea being that another person cannot judge these kinds of claims or prove them wrong. Claims about gender identity are “not up for debate” , as they are held to be sacrosanct.  But philosophers have always discussed and probed sacrosanct notions; the name ‘Socrates’ comes to mind.
If identifying as a woman is sufficient to make you a woman, then there is no need to continue to adapt to the gender role ‘woman’. Your gender identity appears to be independent of any gender role.
At first glance, the obvious advantage of claiming to feel like a woman is that feelings are difficult to scrutinize and to refute. But the first person account of gender identity is not immune to criticism. You could easily be mistaken: how could you know that what you feel or identify with is womanhood, rather than a projection of womanhood? You could be the unreliable narrator of your own story.
If there is indeed some specific feeling of gender (many deny this), how could it come about? I suspect there is some interplay between your biological sex (body) and the respective gender role. Recall that transpeople often claim that they were born into the wrong body. This suggests that they wish their gender identity would align with their biology. The medical profession calls this misalignment “gender dysphoria,” or “body dysphoria.”
Moira Gatens argued that gender norms affect how we see and use our bodies. I internalise gender norms not just through my mind but also through my body. For example, boys and girls learn to walk, gesture or sit in a particular way. Outwardly this might be replicated by transpeople (walking like a woman), but do they have the same sense of a sexed body? Gatens writes (1996: 10): “The ‘feminine male’ may have experiences that are socially coded as ‘feminine’, but these experiences must be qualitatively different from female experience of the feminine.” The gendered experience does not arise from a neutral body, but from a sexed – and lived – body. This means that a transwoman’s idea – (feeling) and experience – of being a woman is fundamentally different from that of a natal woman, because of the differences between their sexed bodies. Transgirls start off with a male body and with being socialized into the male gender role – even if they reject that socialization process early on and try to resist it as much as possible.
Sexed embodiment is part of what it means to be a woman (Stoljar: 284): ‘having menstrual cramps and female sexual experience, and the “lived experience” of child-birth, breast-feeding’, or at least the potential to have such lived experience’. Not every woman will give birth, of course, but the majority of women experience most, if not all, of the sensations associated with having a female body. None of these are open to transwomen, but note that some transwomen claim that they ‘menstruate’ (as I will discuss shortly).
We could add, for example, that the experience of the male gaze from an early age, which is directed at the female body, has an effect on your sense of body.  It can cause eating disorders and self-harm in teenage girls. Of course we should get rid of the male gaze, but, as things stand, it is part of the lived experience for women. The routine objectification of the female body (it is there for male enjoyment) results in a distortion of how females experience their bodies and how society as a whole views their bodies.
So whatever transwomen mean by avowals about their gender (I am a woman!) or by claiming to feel like a woman, it is likely to be off the mark. The female experience is fundamentally different.
Let’s assume that there is this mysterious gender feeling of being a woman. Transwomen could never be sure that what they feel is what natal women feel, because the former were born male and their socialization fundamentally differs from that of girls/women. Not even those natal women who claim to have a specific gender feeling could be sure that what they feel is identical to what another woman feels. It could also be that what (some) women feel about their gender is specifically female, linked to their sexed body, and what (some) transwomen feel is something completely different.
The philosopher Talia Mae Bettcher tries to circumvent the epistemic weaknesses of first-person avowals. For her, First Person Authority about gender is an ethical notion rather than an epistemic notion. If you deny – in the wider community – what people claim about themselves (within trans communities) you wrong them, and you allegedly erase them.
I am not sure that first person claims (I am a woman!) which are accepted within a particular community need be accepted by the wider community. I also doubt that this necessarily would mean that we are wronging them. If someone is accepted and treated as a woman within their own community, why must the wider community accede to such claims, particularly if ‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean something else in these communities, as Bettcher admits?  Why should the norms within a subculture trump the norms within the dominant culture? Why is making a distinction between transwomen and women in the wider community an affront to transwomen? After all – if we follow Bettcher – transwomen are treated as women (whatever that means) within the trans community. So we can agree that they are transwomen, but the claim that they also are women would need more philosophical argument.
If someone claims and is recognised as the King within a subculture, this does not mean that this person is or should be treated as the King of England. I am sure that our monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, would be seriously displeased about such claims to her throne, just as women are whenever they are confronted with people who look like ordinary men, but claim to be women. They are neither female nor adapting to the gender roles associated with women.
Bettcher comes up with a novel solution to the epistemic problems which beset the idea of “feeling like a woman” – by side-stepping them. Bettcher’s improved account banks on the reluctance of people to transgress ethical norms. The default position for most people is that we do not wish to wrong others. If somebody claims something about themselves, then we need to respect their ‘First Person Authority’. But her line of argument suffers from serious weaknesses. Not everything people claim about themselves might be true or might apply in a different context/community. 
This new understanding of the word ‘woman’ among some trans activists suggests that one may look like a man, but feel like and be a woman inside. Or that you could sport a Karl-Marx-type beard and at the same time your cleavage reveals your recently acquired breasts (queering?). The word ‘woman’ doesn’t mean “adult human female” anymore. Similarly, a penis may be called (reclassified as) a ‘lady dick’ or ‘girl dick’.
Some transwomen claim that they have periods. They insist that their symptoms are what a period is, but “without the bleeding.” The biological facts don’t need to fit the definition in order to count as menstruation, for the definition of ‘period’ has been changed to fit the trans experience; to affirm their narrative and confirm them as women. Thus, periods no longer require shedding the lining of one’s uterus, but occur as a result of “getting moody and eating chocolate,” as one transwoman claimed. Many women find this offensive, given the discomfort, distress and pain periods can cause. The traditional markers of womanhood don’t apply any more.
Something similar is claimed for the term ‘lesbian’, which used to mean: same sex attracted woman. According to the revised view, a lesbian who has penile penetrative sex (with a transwoman) would still count as a lesbian. Consequently, gay women who don’t feel attracted to transwomen may be called transphobic (or lesbophobic?).
In this new understanding of the word ‘woman’ there is nothing in your biology, your behavior, your actions, your socialization, your sexed embodiment or your appearance that makes you a woman. All that is required is to feel like a woman, to self-identify as a woman; and this, combined with altering the meaning of the word ‘woman’ (as well as other terms), will make you a woman.
This approach differs from that of rock stars, heroes and heroines, and transwomen (who wish to pass) in that it changes the direction of fit. Previously, individuals who exhibited certain qualities (usually by doing certain things) would fall under a particular concept. Now the definition of ‘woman’ is being changed so that the word will fit the trans narrative.
But let’s not forget the implications for transsexuals and for transwomen who simply want to be read as women. They want to fit into the category of woman rather than reinterpret the concept completely and make the rest of society adapt to their narrative.
In the standard view there are four main elements to being a woman: the brute fact of biology (being born as a girl) which is with you all your life, the socializing pressures from society, the specifically female experience (objectification, subordination, sexual and domestic violence, etc.), and the performance aspect (to whatever degree) of the gender role.
Rock stars are different, in that they don’t start out as rock stars. It is a phase in their life, and for some, quite a long one (Mick Jagger). There is a performance aspect to their role (dress, behavior, etc.) but there is also a substantial element to being a rock star: they write great songs, enthrall their audiences, inspire admiration, etc. What it says on the package is actually inside the package. They don’t just play the role associated with rock stars, they are rock stars. I doubt that many have a “rock star identity,” instead, they most likely identify with being the singer/guitarist/drummer/bass player in the band.
Heroes and heroines don’t come in packages; they don’t play a role. It is usually one-off events that turn them into heroes or heroines. And most heroes and heroines refuse to apply the label to themselves. Others call them heroes and heroines, based on their actions. They don’t “identify” as heroes or heroines.
A transwoman who puts on a wig and make-up for the first time is like a rock star in training; she is focused on the performance aspect of the gender role. Those who pass well will get some idea of female oppression in society. But if a transwoman really wants to know about the female experience she would need to talk to women, and to listen to women’s stories, for a long time.
It is also hard to see how those who rely on a mere feeling can claim to be transwomen. In what sense are they trans? What are they transitioning to or from? Claiming that you are X (a rock star, a hero/heroine, British, or black), based merely on a feeling, doesn’t normally make you into that X.  More is required. Why should this be different for women?
It is possible that there is no such thing as a specific gender identity. To me, this seems plausible. Let me talk about my own experience. I know I am a man (earlier: a boy), because others told me so all my life and treated me in a particular way. But I don’t know whether I feel like a man or even what it might mean to feel like one. I say this because I have no reference point, nothing to compare it to. All I know is how men act, but I don’t have access to their psychological states. What they feel (about their gender) might be completely different from what I feel – if I do feel anything “gendery” at all; I’m not sure I do. So if there are no specific gender feelings which we share within our respective groups (woman, man, gender-fluid, etc.), then the feeling-account of gender implodes.
But even if we accepted the new feeling-account of what it is to be a woman, it looks like an impoverished or very thin notion of what it means to be a woman – and, strangely, these individuals appear to be indistinguishable from ordinary men. This leads to a practical problem: how are others in wider society supposed to identify you as a woman and treat you as such, when there are no external markers to help them? Everywhere you go, you’d have to run around with a t-shirt or badge stating: “I am a woman,” as well as telling every new person you meet that you are a woman and inviting them to use particular pronouns.
Being a woman surely is more than a feeling – at least, this is what my female friends tell me.
 Women who were born as girls and who haven’t transitioned to another gender status later on.
 This is the dictionary definition from the SOED.
 Using guitars and microphone stands as penis extensions.
 Of course what you are given at birth, by ‘nature’, is tied to the biological make-up of your parents.
 Some people deny that ‘biological sex’ is real – it’s a social construct: https://www.autostraddle.com/its-time-for-people-to-stop-using-the-social-construct-of-biological-sex-to-defend-their-transmisogyny-240284/
 This is in tension with progressive feminist ideas: (most) gender norms are harmful and they are not what makes you into a woman. There is no need to conform to (all of) them.
 However, Stoljar’s (274) view is: ‘female sex turns out to be a necessary component of the concept of woman, although as I have suggested it is not essential to the attribution of womanness to an individual.’
 Some transwomen pass as women and will experience the male gaze, but for women this is an experience which starts in puberty. In some cultures this may lead to a complete covering up of the body, to breast binding or to breast ironing. Transwomen do the opposite, whereas transmen try to hide the female features of their body – just like some natal women.
 Are all transpeople joining and living in trans communities in addition to living their regular lives as Bettcher suggests?
 There is another aspect to all of this. For centuries women’s bodies have been depicted as lacking, men’s bodies being the norm(al) – culminating in Freud’s ‘penis envy’. With transwomen claiming to be literally/biologically women, possibly endowed with ‘lady dicks’, this could be seen as another attempt to denigrate the female body.
 Blaire White, a transwoman, dismisses such notions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTSd5PS4-JY&feature=youtu.be.
 Note that many transsexuals do not like the idea of trans people not ‘transitioning’ – there are divisions in the trans community about this issue.
 Since writing this essay self-identification has been taken to a new level in the UK. The University and College Union takes the view that you can self-identify as black or disabled (https://www.ucu.org.uk/media/10564/UCUs-position-on-Trans-inclusion/pdf/Trans_inclusion_November_2019.pdf).